PQ 17.1 — What assumptions do I have about what my relationships “should” look like? How are these assumptions influenced by the cultural narratives about monogamy, and how much are they truly mine?
Assumptions are often hidden to us, and as such, they’re easier seen in hindsight, after we don’t have them anymore. And if I look back on my biggest ones, they weren’t simply influenced by cultural narratives of monogamy but intricately woven into them.
My picture of love was and still is deep, intense, complicated — but at one point in time, it was also absolutely exclusive. Not only did love mean that you had one partner and one partner alone, but they were your One and Only in a number of other ways. Socially. The primary source of your emotional fulfillment.
There’s a reason I coined the term toxic monogamy to describe a form of relationship exclusivity that leads to social isolation. It wasn’t some abstract foe that I was fighting that existed somewhere out in the ether. No, I knew a great deal about the toxic version of monogamy. Because I had lived it.
But at the time, it hadn’t seemed toxic at all. It had seemed normal, like the way things simply are. I was the proverbial fish who didn’t realize I was surrounded by water. And it led to confounding talks with my partner at the time:
“I really wish you’d do X,” I’d say to him.
“Well, I’m not a person who does that,” he’d say. “And it’s wrong to try to change someone. So what you’re telling me is that you don’t really want me.”
“No, I do want you,” I’d say.
“That’s not what you just said,” he’d say.
And we’d stand there, both bound by assumptions we had. He believed that it was wrong to change for someone and even more wrong for someone to ask you to. We both believed that we needed to meet all of each other’s needs all by ourselves. And that anybody who couldn’t wasn’t really right for us.
So in those moments, sensing the emotional peril I’d landed in, I’d walk back what I said. “You know what?” I’d say. “I don’t really care that much about X.”
“Really?” he’d ask.
“Really,” I’d respond.
And whatever it was this particular time (long talks in the dark, showering together, his reading my writing), I’d do my best to live without it. Because the last thing I wanted to do was tell him he wasn’t good enough for me. That I didn’t really want him. That the love I thought I had for him wasn’t real.
Grieving the Loss of “One and Only”
Eight years into that relationship, friends of ours came out as polyamorous. Arguably the most stable and mature friends in that social circle. It changed everything: The kinds of conversations my friends were having about relationships, the way we all related to one another. A few of my friends were horrified, but most of us started to experiment, opening up our own relationships.
And when I did, I found that assumption that I had to be my partner’s One and Only to be one of the worst landmines. Over and over, I’d crash into those expectations. Even though I’d consented to the arrangement, my partner seeking solace and support in someone else felt like it meant that I wasn’t doing my job. I’d stew, enraged, when I realized that he had private conversations with my metamour that I wasn’t part of. When they traded gifts. When they did activities that I didn’t enjoy.
I didn’t mind the fact that they were physically intimate nearly as much as I thought I would. Instead, I became threatened by the fact that he suddenly had another close social bond with someone else. And I took it as a sign that I had failed somehow.
But most of this was unspoken, automatic. It took me months to see the edge of the problem — years to fully grok it.
And when I did, it was a real epiphany. But a painful one.
On one hand, the realization that I didn’t have to put that much pressure on myself, that I was “enough” without being someone’s One and Only, well, it was really freeing.
But at the same time, it felt like I was losing something. And not just because of struggling with feelings of demotion and displacement (although those were certainly factors).
It was also the loss of a dream.
Without even being consciously aware, the quasi-magical state of being someone’s One and Only had been part of a picture of romantic love I’d had my entire life. And now that dream was over. I couldn’t go back to seeing things the same way as I had before, even when I was functionally monogamous after a spate of breakups.
I grieved for months.
And then one day, the sense of relief overtook that grief. The knowledge that I didn’t have to be someone’s everything to be “enough.” That I didn’t need to put that kind of pressure on myself to be someone else’s world. That I could be an important part of a life that was also rich outside of their love for me.